Some movies leave little explanation and cry out for interpretation. The Meaning of Life, a 35 mm animated short film both directed and written by Don Hertzfeldt is one of those. The plot, if you could call it a plot, is quite simple.
We begin with grey and white abstract forms that immediately call to mind chaos, in the Genesis sense: 'tohu vavohu." The world begins. A stick figure of a supine man comes into the scene, bathed in white. He gently falls down to the bottom of the scene as his body withers and decays - life, into death, we are too think. The title of the film comes to mind - what is the meaning of life? All we are, after all, will simply rot and fester into nothing.
Meaning cannot be found in the nothingness that is death, so Hertzfeldt shows us life - perhaps we may find our answer here. But life, according to Hertzfeldt, is apparently empty, at least superficially. He depicts life in a magnificent way. Stick figures pace back and forth, muttering to themselves and each other the same phrases over and over again. A woman walks by, vapidly repeating, "I want it. I want it." People get in fights. People worry. People fret, people smile. Most people are distraught in some way. The ones that aren't seem to be either faking their joy or are too foolish to know differently. And recall - these are complicated emotions being portrayed magnificently with scribbles and stick figures.
Gradually, the screen gets more and more crowded with individuals, until all we see is a mass of stick-humanity, muttering and yelling and crying and talking all at once. It is undecipherable. And then - they begin to fast-forward. Time is moving on until all the humans are odd, stick-figure skeletons.
Have we learned anything? Have we seen 'the meaning of life' in the jumbled horde that is humanity? Perhaps. I have not. These people don't live for anything, it seems, they don't strive for anything. They are as one dimensional spiritually (not in the religious sense) as they are in the spatial sense (they are stick figures. Remember?).
But perhaps this is an unfair judgment. After all, we're being distracted by the phrases they utter, and the utter misery that seems to arise from them surely is not representational of actual humanity - in short, we've been given a skewed lens to view 'the meaning of life' with. Perhaps, though, if we were to examine sentient entities like humans, but not humans, so that we aren't biased by the fact that they are human, all too human - perhaps then we may be able to discover the meaning of sentient life (for that is what we are after, non?)
Hertzfeldt thinks that this is a wonderful idea. And now that humans are all killed off, we may proceed to other forms of life. We ascend through the heavens, far out of our solar system, and then we zoom back down to Earth. The visuals here are magnificent - the ink drawings he uses to demonstrate clouds are fantastic, resembling watercolors, and are reminiscent of some parts of Yellow Submarine. And the planets and solar system are wonderfully rendered. Our sun appears in a hue of yellow that is so bright, you nearly need to look away, and the passage of time is shown as a slow dance, the stars and the Milky Way just drift across the screen lovingly, before we blast back to Earth of the future.
And here, we encounter some remarkable creatures. I dare not describe them lest I do them injustice. But recall the Sea of Monsters, from Yellow Submarine - it does that scene proud, and then some. My grip with that scene is that there weren't enough odd creatures. Luckily, Don Hertzfeldt heard my plea, and has come up with some truly unique, truly inventive creatures that I salute him for.
We watch these creatures prance about, gobbling and tweeting and chirping in herds. Presumably they are evolving as time goes on, because they seem to become slightly more intelligent and complicated. Seriously, though, I have to reiterate - these creatures are sometimes majestic and breathtaking, an impression that the orchestral score heightens as it soars to great heights and evokes a sense of wonderment.
And at least. Two creatures. A father and son, mayhaps. The son, the little one, asks the father in a strange tongue, something that goes, "[nonsense syllables and sounds] meaning of life?"
The father's eyes narrow. "Meaning of life? Bah." He then launches into what seems like an intersting explication of the meaning of life. In the future, do they know what the meaning of life is? Well... he ends his short lecture with his eyes narrowed again, clearly frustrated at a vexing question, and repeats, "Meaning of life? Bah," before waddling off on his tentacles, muttering to himself.
The son stands alone, silent, as the scene grows darker. Gradually, the stars start to come out, and we are treated to an even more magnificent viewing of the cosmos. Glowing orbs fly by in streams that resemble veins and arteries of sparkling diamonds. It is truly a sight to be seen.
What is The Meaning of Life, and what is the meaning of life? There are no answers here, only exhortations for us to ask ourselves the question. It is for us to interpret on our own. Perhaps we do so in vain, just as we try and give meaning to the undecipherable response the tentacle being gives to his son. Or perhaps we get too caught up on trying to understand the meaning in specific, qualitative terms, so that we don't appreciate it for what it is, as we might with the concept of beauty (if we spend to much time pondering why something is beautiful, we miss the actual beauty itself). The meaning of life, Hertzfeldt seems to be saying, is like the beauty of the stars. It is not something that can be truly told. It can only be experienced.
The Meaning of Life can be watched on mubi.com. It used to be available free of charge, but now you'll have to pay all of $1 to watch it. Sign up for the site, spend the dollar, and watch it. It's easily worth it.